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Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Score: 6/10

Genre: Mystery Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: November 10th, 2017 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Kenneth Branagh Actors: Kenneth Branagh, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Marwan Kenzari, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe

I

n 1934 in Jerusalem, renowned detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), adorned with an unmistakably extravagant mustache, patiently waits for the perfect eggs to be fetched and prepared, just before he is summoned to the Wailing Wall, where he is to solve the mystery of a vanished artifact, blamed on one of three religious leaders. As with his food, Poirot seeks perfection in all things, but he’s gifted – or cursed – with the ability to detect the seemingly infinitesimal flaws. Where he demands balance and harmony (after accidentally setting a foot down upon animal droppings, he places his other, clean shoe into the mess to create a precise equality), he instead finds imperfections, which, with deductive reasoning, allows him to notice the details and motives that fellow investigators cannot. He’s also quite tickled with Dickens, and he’s a trifle superstitious.

Although this introductory conundrum includes a flashback or two, the use of such a device is almost unnecessary. It really only serves to break up the scenery. But it’s far less intrusive than the methods seen in Guy Ritchie’s modernized tellings of Sherlock Holmes, which are essentially recaps of entire scenarios that were withheld from the audience. Here, director Branagh attempts to divulge clues that might coax viewers into guessing the outcome right alongside Poirot. And if they can’t, at least it’s not so overwrought and complex as to be pure fantasy.

“I know your mustache!” Just as Hercule begins his vacation, an envoy from the British Consulate insists upon returning him to London for help on a new case, forcing him to hastily board the Orient Express train. With the aid of longtime friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot is assigned a bunk on the completely booked conveyance, which promises, at the very least, three days of no crime to worry about. Unfortunately for Poirot, a murder is about to take place on the Express; and unfortunately for the killer, “probably the greatest detective in the world” happens to be aboard.

A huge ensemble cast of recognizable stars file into the railroad cars, so as to build up the number of possible suspects. Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Dench, Olivia Colman, and Willem Dafoe are but a handful of the distinct players in this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s much-loved novel. Here, Branagh injects a considerable amount of comedy into the initial interactions, which largely offsets the seriousness of the titular murder when it finally arrives; it takes a rather long time for all of these characters to receive proper introductions, and some of them fade into the background, rather forgettably. This is both good and bad: to its credit, the excess of personas keeps the mystery nicely convoluted; but working against the film is the lack of development for several participants, which makes their outcomes less involving.

The beauty of this story is that everything seems coincidental or random, as if a bit of bad luck has resulted in an unsolvable slaying. Yet as Poirot begins collecting clues and conducting interrogations of the passengers, it becomes increasingly evident that nearly nothing has occurred by chance. Since the source material is more than 83 years old, it’s likely that a great number of viewers won’t be familiar with the story. And of all the classic whodunits, this just might be the prime candidate for going in blind; the solution to the crime simply cannot be forgotten, and the surprise of the culprit accounts for a high percentage of its overall appeal.

But for audiences well-versed in Christie’s tale, Branagh crafts an entertaining version of the famous sleuth, with a few minor plot adjustments to produce tension, action, additional backdrops for the theatrical deducing, and a brief return to flashbacks (paired with Poirot’s narration). Despite refusing to alter the basic storyline (which is an appropriate decision), the character of Poirot remains thoroughly fascinating, and the sizable cast is enjoyable to see. This retelling runs a touch overlong, slowing down from time to time for an unneeded conversation (on rare occasion), but it’s nevertheless encouraging to think that new audiences will be exposed to the genius of Christie’s celebrated gumshoe.

– Mike Massie

 



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